Seniors and others sometimes struggle to clear sidewalks
With warmer-than-normal temperatures, Minneapolis this year has been a deeper shade of brown than its typical whiter shade of pale. But even so, city officials have logged more than 2,600 complaints so far about unshoveled sidewalks.
When it snows, the city government expects homeowners to get out with shovels and blowers and clear the white stuff from the sidewalks in front of their houses.
City ordinance 445 states that walks must be cleared down to the concrete within 24 hours of a snowfall, but for some people, including senior citizens, a heavy blanket of snow can present a substantial physical obstacle.
Seventy-seven-year-old Irene Williams has lived in Lyndale for nearly her entire life. She prides herself on being the first person on her block to have her sidewalk cleared.
That pride dissolved when she received a letter from City Hall last month that said she'd owe $102 or more if she didn't immediately remove the snow from her sidewalk.
Williams was perplexed. There was no snow on her sidewalk when the letter arrived. The snowfall the letter referred to had happened a week earlier and it had already melted.
To Williams, the letter was arbitrary and intimidating.
“I was disturbed, angry and scared. I couldn't imagine why they were doing that,” she said.
Nevertheless, she didn't take advantage of the offer the city made in its notice to senior citizens. The city will help connect seniors with volunteer groups that shovel snow for free or for small fees. The city is also willing to grant people more time to shovel their sidewalks or officials may also try to figure out if there's a neighbor who'd be able to pitch in for those physically unable to do it themselves.
Williams said she didn't take advantage of the city's offer of help because she figured the issue would simply “pass.”
There's a catch to the city's offer, however, said Dan Bauer, supervisor for Minneapolis Public Works Sidewalk Inspections.
“They have to call us and let us know,” he said. “We're inclined and able to help. We want them to call us.”
Connecting seniors to services
City Senior Ombudsperson Ruth Kildow said that a lot of seniors do call and that last year the department received 14,000 calls (including inquiries regarding tax preparation,the senior center and city services for seniors).
Kildow said that it would be nice if seniors could be identified before being assessed fees and fines, but that the city has no way of knowing the ages of inhabitants of houses with excess snow on its sidewalks. So she tries instead to connect seniors with volunteer “chore groups” comprised of Boy Scouts, church groups and others that will help clear seniors' sidewalks.
A failure to communicate?
After getting her letter from the city, Williams called her next-door neighbor, Peter Millington, for help. As it turned out, he and others on the block had received the same notification from the city.
For Millington, the correspondence represents a lack of communication between the city and its residents. He penned a letter to City Hall and to the mayor on Williams' behalf, expressing his disgust with the city's protocol regarding the snow-shoveling ordinance.
The number of complaints about unshoveled sidewalks this year is comparable to the number of complaints received by the city in the past, Bauer said.
After a complaint is received through the city's information line or the 311 system, a sidewalk inspector checks out a property and neighboring yards within a couple days. If the sidewalk is laden with snow, an inspector sends the property owner a letter describing the ordinance. It gives the owner 24 hours to shovel the sidewalk after the snowfall has subsided. A follow-up letter is sent within the next few days and then the property is re-inspected.
The letter the city sent Williams stated that in addition to her citation, she'd be charged “$2 per linear foot of sidewalk” for a city crew to clear away the snow.
Williams said the notice from the city was the first she'd ever received on the subject.
Millington was upset because Williams “has diligently kept her pathway and the sidewalk pertaining to her property free from snow, and the public pavement salted.”
He suggests that a better course of action for the city would've been to alert Williams in a more neighborly fashion by knocking on her door.
“I'm sensitive to that and I understand how a senior would feel if he or she has been responsible for many years,” Bauer said. “In most situations, the sidewalks are treacherous for seniors and others to walk across.
“The letter is intended to get people out there to clear the sidewalk,” he added. “There's a reason for that letter - to shake people up a bit.”
Williams said she would be outside clearing her sidewalk after the next snow. But the shaken senior will also, with the help of Millington, work with neighbors to make sure her sidewalk is cleaned off.